The 14 July 2007 was undoubtedly a dark day in the history of Argentinian football, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Brazil in the final of the Copa America exacerbated by the subsequent international retirement of captain and defensive stalwart Roberto Ayala, scorer of an own goal against the Seleção.

Since then, the speculation surrounding who would replace the Real Zaragoza man has been fierce. The sheer quantity of reader polls, debates and articles on the issue just serves to underline Ayala's importance to the Albiceleste cause in the eyes of fans and media alike.

Yet the solution appears to have been right under their noses. Bayern Munich central defender Martin Demichelis, once of River Plate, was the man chosen by Argentina boss Alfio Basile to fill the sizeable gap left by El Ratón.

The former Millonario has not disappointed, grabbing the only goal of the game in the friendly against Australia on 11 September - his first game for the national team under El Coco. A few weeks later, the Cordoba-born defender strengthened his bid for a regular berth by helping Argentina to successive clean sheets in their first two qualifying matches on the road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. All of which came little more than a year after Demichelis failed to make Jose Pekerman's final squad for Germany 2006.

'Painful experience'
Though the Bayern man assures he is not one to dwell on the past, that 2006 disappointment must surely make his current national team success all the more enjoyable? "It's not something I like talk about too much, because it's already long gone," he said.

"I've already spoken a lot about what happened and, as you'd expect, it was a very painful experience. But now I want to think about the present and how well things are going for me. You need to focus on what's ahead."

And, after his performances in the opening qualifiers were heartily endorsed by the country's media, the future looks bright for Demichelis. "Those games were a real test for me, and not just because I was coming back [into the squad]," he continued.

"They (the Argentinian fans and media) hadn't seen me play as a central defender for a long time and I knew I'd be subject to intense scrutiny. Fortunately, thanks to the confidence the coaching staff and players had in me, I managed to play well. That said, I felt like I could have done a bit more against Chile."

Cementing his place
Yet that win over La Roja saw Demichelis snuff out the goalscoring threat of experienced finishers Humberto Suazo and Marcelo Salas, as well as providing a welcome opportunity to revisit the stadium where he took his first steps as a professional. "Going back to the Monumental was very special, and that's something Basile pointed out to me in front of the entire squad," says the former River Plate man.

"He told me that I knew the stadium, that I was used to playing in front of big crowds and that I had everybody's full support. Those kind of gestures of support in front of the entire squad really strengthen your morale, so I'm very grateful to him as well as the other lads."

Coming hot on the heels of the victory over Chile was another 2-0 success, this time against Venezuela, Micho further cementing his place with a towering performance. Timely interceptions, aerial prowess and his customary composure when dribbling out of defence earned Demichelis rave reviews. "I think I played with more freedom in that match, but that's to be expected after more training sessions and hours spent with the other players.

"The plan is to keep my place in the squad for a long time yet, though I won't be going overboard or getting ahead of myself," warned the man who has slotted seamlessly into the position vacated by Argentina's most-capped player. "And the game against Bolivia at the weekend? The fans will be looking for a goal-fest, but we must not get carried away. It's more important to get the win, play well and keep getting stronger."

And how does it feel to follow in the footsteps of an Albiceleste legend like Ayala? "There's nothing new I can say about what Roberto meant to the national team, but I'd have to be around for a huge length of time to win as many caps as him. As I said before, I intend to enjoy every national team call-up and do my very best for this squad and for those who believed in me."